Thursday, December 18, 2008
Friday, November 21, 2008
I had the good fortune to attend the Robo Development show this week. It was smaller than one would have hoped...reflecting what seems to be a continued lack of awareness by the mainstream technology community of the promise of personal robotics.
Willow Garage Speech
Steve Cousins presented a compelling story to a full room. He showed the classic hockey-stick for the coming personal robotics field, describing the light manufacturing and service jobs that could be done by such devices.
The Willow Garage philosophy of “impact first” sounds fine indeed. He discussed the distributed architecture of the system, the processing power, and other great features of the device. With what seems the best team of researchers in the world, Willow Garage is a thrill to see.
Roboware E3 @ Microsoft Booth
Most of the time, I don’t cover the robots that seem like toys. But the E3 robot from Roboware, a Korean partner to Microsoft, is a very practical device. They claim it can pick up .5 kilos in a gripper, and has a internal computer running XP, accessible for external programs, with wireless net access. Scale this up a bit and it could be a much more serious robot.
Readybot Prototype In Person
Although Readybot didn’t have their own booth, one of their suppliers (Allmotion) were kind enough to let them demo. Great-looking robot, higher quality than I expected for a prototype. I spoke to Rand, one of the engineers on the project, and looked at some of their design work. His message was that the Readybot robot itself was not their main focus; the robot is just a test unit built because they couldn’t find anything else to practice on. Well, not bad for a test unit, that is all I can say.
He said the main focus of the group was application software usable on any robot hardware.
My gut reaction: Readybot is a serious contender…their approach is novel and promising.
Saturday, November 1, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
In any case I was trying to find an analogy to convey to him the promise of this field, and I remembered many years ago, my first introduction to the World Wide Web. Back then, it was this nerdy technology that a few local people were raving about. I remember the Well, an early and influential online community in the Bay Area, where people said silly things like “The World Wide Web is going to change the world in ways you cannot even imagine. Just wait and see.”
I remember being cynical about those comments. But they were right. The new paradigm of the World Wide Web turned into an earthshaking, mind-blowing change in human existence.
That’s what I see in personal robotics. Perhaps not as big, not as fundamental a shift as the Internet. But certainly a very significant change. I think this next phase of robotics will be much larger than the old-style industrial robotics field that I worked in.
Another analogy: you might consider old-style robotics firms, like ABB and Denso, to be the equivalent of Tandem and Wang Computers. The new up-and-coming personal robotics field will spin off the Dells, Compaqs, and Googles of robotics. I see a few startups even now that, with the devices and concepts they are developing, have the potential to be these superstars.
In the robotics field, the biggest is yet to come.
Friday, July 25, 2008
The French start up Aldebaran-Robotics based in Paris has high hopes for its humanoid robot called NAO. The device is 57 cm high and weighs 4.5 kilograms (about the size of a 6 month old baby) and you may be about to see a lot more of it. The company has sent a simplified version to 16 teams playing in the Robocup humanoid football league this year.
NAO looks an impressive device, judging by the design, which the company has posted on the arXiv today. And others clearly agree. Earlier this year, the company picked up Euros 5 million in venture capital funding to help commercialise the device. The target market is university research labs involved in developing the next generation of software and hardware for robotics.
That’s a smart move because it could make NAO a de facto standard. NAO doesn’t come cheap, however. A single robot will set you back Euros 10K but that is significantly cheaper than most other humanoids. Fujitsu’s HOAP costs $50K, for instance, and Honda hasn’t been able to put price on Asimo.
The company hopes that economies of scale will bring down the price as production scales up. Eventually it hopes to sell NAO to the public for Euros 4K each.
Better start saving.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0807.3223: The NAO Humanoid: A Combination of Performance and Affordability
Friday, July 11, 2008
Care-O-Bot, your future robotic butler by ZDNet's Roland Piquepaille -- German researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute have introduced their third generation of household robots, the Care-O-Bot 3. The previous generations of this mobile robot assistant were designed to assist elderly or handicapped people in daily life activities. But now, this new 1.45 meter-high robot is intended to be an artificial assistant always at your service, even if you're young and in good health. It moves on 4 spherical wheels in any direction and has a large array of sensors to ensure it will never hurt you. With it 3-finger hand, it can handle a bottle of apple juice or champagne put on its front tray. It will then wait until you ask it to pour a glass for you. Sorry, I don't know when it becomes commercially available. But read more...
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Automatons work pretty well — if you're looking to weld thousands of cars exactly the same way. But what we really want is C-3P0: a robot that looks, acts, and responds like a human, except is easier to boss around. So why don't we have one?
Well, despite sophisticated mathematics and years of experimentation, we still aren't very good at modeling life... (read more...)
Monday, June 30, 2008
At the movies this week, an adorable robot named Wall-E, along with an entire spaceship of robots, do all the dirty yet necessary work that human beings no longer want to do. Now, three groups of entrepreneurs in the Bay Area are showing off real robots for just that purpose.
There are plenty of robots being built in other places in the world, but most of them are either expensive science projects like the Japanese ASIMO, or super-simple, super-limited devices like vacuum cleaners or lawnmowers. What developers still haven’t tackled, say industry insiders, is a multi-purpose robot, or so-called “service” robot that can work around human beings in homes and businesses.
These service robots generally aren’t humanoid, with wheels instead of legs, and don’t crack jokes. But they do have 2 arms that reach about as high and far as a human being, allowing them to do basic human tasks – loading a dishwasher for example – yet stay within the budget of average homes and businesses. Talk to a robotics researcher for the timeline for such a robot, and you often hear “20 years away” (which is an academic code-phrase that means “I don’t know”) But as it turns out, the ever-fertile minds of the entrepreneurs are already at work, with announcements of real products that are months, or at most years away. Introducing the real Wall-Es of Silicon Valley.
Willow Garage is a group of Stanford University roboticists building a device called the PR1 – a “Personal Robot” about the size of a large upright vacuum cleaner with 2 human arms and an array of cameras. Situated in a plush office in a chic neighborhood of Menlo Park, the PR-1 developers say their next model, the PR-2, should be shipped to researchers in test quantities in by the end of 2008. Their software is designated specifically “open source”. Funding is apparently provided by one or more former Google employees...announcements on the Willow Garage website demonstrate the well-funded nature of their project, with the claim that a team of 60 full-time roboticists could be supported “indefinitely” and an $850,000 dollars US donation to the Stanford University robotics program.
Willow Garage Home
Personal Robot Link (new!!)
Anybot, located in Mountain View, has developed two separate designs; a humanoid walking robot that apparently competes with the ASIMO, and a wheeled robot that is intended for more practical use. The walking robot, called Dexter, uses what the firm called “Dynamic Balancing” which it says is more flexible and realistic than the static design used by ASIMO and others. Both robots show a mass of tubes, joints, and wires, with no concessions to consumer appearance so far. Unlike most other designs, Anybot uses pneumatic (air driven) pistons for moving arms and legs, instead of electric motors more commonly favored by other designers; they claim pneumatics gives them a more “realistic” feel.
Anybots was founded by a former Yahooo entrepreneur who is also founder of venture capital firm. With cover stories in the local newspaper and visits to art galleries, they appear to be making plenty of marketing headway.
Anybot Video of Monty
The Readybot Challenge is organized as a “non-profit group of veteran engineers” that decided (just for the challenge, they say) to build a kitchen-cleaning robot. They released two videos which show a robot that looks the simplest but most commercial-looking we've seen, complete with chrome trim. The videos themselves are entertaining, with a finger-snapping soundtrack. The most traditional seat-of-their-pants upstart – the group says the robot was built in their founder’s garage – they say their design philosophy is modeled after the historic IBM PC “clone” market, where all the components, arms, video systems, and base, could be made by different specialized vendors and snapped together into different easy-to-upgrade configurations. Sounds good; let’s see if they can pull it off.
Readybot Video (very enjoyable and consumer-friendly)
Who Will Win?
At this early stage, the question is probably irrelevant. All three of these start-ups appear to have smart people, working on a problem that has a long lead time and significant hurdles. Willow Garage is clearly the best-funded, able to dole out grants to Stanford University and attract attract the best talent, but as many high-tech ventures have found over the years, such largesse can lead to complacency. Readybot is the scrappy competitor, launching geurilla marketing campaigns from the founders living room, but do they have lasting power? Anybots appears to be in the middle, but their designs look highly technical, and not consumer-focused. The reality is, any of these or some combination could succeed, or just as likely, none of them may succeed if the market for such robots never catches fire.
Sit back, grab a box of popcorn. This movie will be fun to watch.
Service robots assist human beings, typically by performing a job that is dirty, dull, distant, dangerous or repetitive, including household chores. They typically are autonomous and/or operated by a build in control system, with manual override options.
Examples of service robots
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Cleaning & Housekeeping
Agriculture & Harvesting
Guides & Office
Picking & Palletising
Search & Rescue
Sunday, April 13, 2008
Many people know about the Roomba vacuum cleaning robots, and other robots that mow lawns, clean gutters, and provide telepresence. We'll be looking at newer and more powerful robots that are just coming out.